Theatre: The droning of Fay Weldon

The Four Alice Bakers

Birmingham Rep

Lift Off

Royal Court Upstairs, London

Shockheaded Peter

Lyric, London

In her new play, Fay Weldon has come up with a new and sinister hate figure. It isn't the genetic scientist or the chatshow host or the daughter who accuses her father of sexual abuse, though all these characters appear prominently. Her new scary monster is never actually glimpsed in .

This figure is the anonymous TV researcher who digs up enough personal details about the unsuspecting guests on the "Harry Harper Ethical Show" to expose them to the prurient scorn of millions. Thanks to the surprising omniscience of his researcher, Harry Harper knows more about Professor Baker and his family than they do themselves. He is about to reveal (and I'm not giving it away, it's in the Birmingham Rep leaflet) that Baker's three daughters are clones of his wife.

Michael Cashman seizes the role of Harper, the smarmy TV host, who puts Baker, a genetic scientist, in the "hot seat", with demonic glee. Try to imagine Jeremy Paxman doing a Joel Grey in Cabaret. A song and dance moraliser, he waggles an accusing index finger at any un-PC remark and boogies on down to the commercial jingles from the show's sponsor.

Weldon's grasp of science doesn't impress us the way Michael Frayn's does in Copenhagen. Nor does her grasp of the mechanics of broadcasting impress us the way Stephen Poliakoff's does in Talk of the City. It's easy enough to do the fanfare opening of a TV show, the swirling lights and apocalyptic music, as Cashman walks down the illuminated staircase to soak up the audience's applause. In TV terms, that's pure showbiz. The tough part is to sustain the illusion of a TV programme taking place within a play. It requires an assured grasp of the distinct rhythms of the two media, and an ability to shift our focus between what can be seen by the imaginary TV audience and what can't. In on-stage/off-stage dramas, the energy lies in the shuttling between the two.

The director, Bill Alexander, places cameras and monitors round the edge of the stage, but the cameras don't follow the action, and what's displayed on the monitors resembles closed-circuit TV. After an entertaining, splashy opening, Alexander's production implodes, as we realise it's easier to believe in the most technical scientific advances, that are currently occupying Professor Baker, than in these characters or their situation.

Ruari Murchison's designs split the Birmingham Rep stage into three areas: the snazzy TV studio; the hospitality suite that's suspended in the air like a capacious lift; and a circular tower that revolves to let us travel back in time to catch glimpses of the Baker's family life. Centre stage, we have a high-backed leather swivel chair, where first Professor Baker, then his wife, then his eldest daughter, then his middle daughter, and then his youngest daughter, face Cashman's questions. Structurally, the play is a bore.

Baker, the rumpled scientist (David Hargreaves), worked with Francis Crick on DNA structures at Cambridge. That was when he fell in love with Alice (Diane Fletcher). We know Alice was an English rose because she announces, in a line that characterises the play's level of dialogue: "I am what you would call an English rose." The three daughters also announce their characters as if filling in questionnaires. One may or may not have been abused by their father. One may or may not be a lesbian. One may or may not really be a man.

Topical subjects then, but it never lives as drama. You feel Fay Weldon, who has written 20 TV plays, has watched more bad TV than good theatre. On stage, there's nowhere to go. After the interval it quickly becomes apparent that there may be four Alice Bakers, but there's no second act. As the play limps towards its premature conclusion, the spirits begin to soar.

In a week in which issues of race rapidly boiled down to a few iconic images of Stephen or Doreen and Neville Lawrence on the one hand and the five suspects on the other, Roy Williams's Lift Off was a salutary antidote. Ultz, the designer, sits the audience in a single row round a concrete stage that's raised to eye-level, like a boxing ring. Grafitti is daubed on the walls. Here we watch the friendship between a black boy and a white boy as it runs from primary school through to adulthood.

Awareness of race is always there, but only when they fall out does it become a focus for their anger. At school, Mal, the young black (Ashley Chin) teases Tone, the young white (Sid Mitchell) that he really wants to be black. They both pick on another black kid. When they are adults and fall out, Mal (Michael Price) challenges Tone (Alex Walkinshaw) to call him a "nigger". He would feel better if his ex-friend hated him.

Williams's gift for undermining cliches, and poking around in tricky subjects, makes Lift Off refreshingly complicated and contradictory. Indhu Rubasingham's production has easygoing yet vigorous performances from both the younger and older casts. They're adept at punching out Williams's convincing colloquial dialogue. The joshing strikes us as typical of the tangy emotional lives that we can believe in.

Peter Brook's maxim was that he could take an empty space and call it a stage. The creators of Shockheaded Peter revel in all the aspects of theatre that Brook swept away with that single statement: front cloth, proscenium arch, fourth wall, footlights, cut-outs, plunging perspectives, pop-ups and make-up. They celebrate the vanished world of illusion.

Co-directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch return to the Lyric, where they staged their Angela Carter-inspired Cinderella, with this "junk opera" that mixes cabaret with macabre stories from Heinrich Hoffmann's 1844 Struwwelpeter. Shockheaded Peter matches the talents of the high- pitched cherubic crooner, Martyn Jacques, as he moves from honeyed tones to savage shrieks, with the histrionic narration of Julian Bleach, whose saturnine make-up might have been applied by a house painter.

Everything gets elongated, from finger nails and hair to pauses and screams. The central story of two parents who murder a child that continues to grow in their imagination, gets stretched through a dozen other stories. Over the 100 minutes, without an interval, momentum is never at a premium. But the ceaseless visual inventiveness turns the cosy nostalgic world of children's theatre to self-consciously dark and gruesome ends. As cut- outs of the children's graves rise from the floor, everything that was once seen to be deadly about theatre turns out to be deadly in an entirely new and invigorating way. Peter Brook might approve.

`': Birmingham Rep (0121 236 4455), to 13 March. `Lift Off': Royal Court Upstairs, WC2 (0171 565 5000), to 13 March. `Shockheaded Peter': Lyric ,W6 (0181 741 2311), to 10 April.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'